Clement Greenberg: An Appreciation
The art critic Clement Greenberg died this past May at the age of eighty-five. Although he had written little for more than two decades, Greenberg remained a contentious and widely discussed, almost a legendary, figure in the art world and the world of academic art criticism.
Even in death Greenberg managed to stir controversy. The obituary of him in the New York Times, for example, was a model of ignorance and stupidity. Not only did the author garble the name of the artist Theodoras Stamos, and not only did he confuse Partisan Review—the distinguished highbrow magazine for which Greenberg wrote some of his most important essays—with the Paris Review (a feat more or less equivalent to confusing COMMENTARY with Commonweal); but he also produced a grotesque caricature of Greenberg’s ideas, according to which Greenberg was supposed to have thought that art criticism should equal art as a creative endeavor.
If the Times obituary was probably the dumbest to appear in a major newspaper, for pure malevolence the sneering attack on Greenberg written by Paul Richard in the Washington Post must take the palm. According to Richard, Greenberg was a bit of a hypocrite, spouting Marxist rhetoric while disdaining the taste of the masses. Moreover, Richard hinted darkly, Greenberg compromised his critical independence by accepting works of art as presents from artists he admired and wrote about. Even worse, Greenberg was “the narrowest of judges,” someone who shamelessly touted his few favorite artists but “caused much pain” to those many he did not like.
What one could not glean from either obituary (or “Appreciation,” as the Post called Richard’s exercise in character assassination) is the fact that many consider Clement Greenberg to be the most important art critic America has yet produced. To be sure, there have always been plenty of voices raised against him and his ideas. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, artists who failed to attract his praise and critics who succeeded in attracting his ire naturally rebelled against his strictures. In recent years, the attacks have become more virulent, as a wide range of academic critics and their epigones have taken aim not only at Greenberg’s judgments but also at the aesthetic and moral values that informed them.
Nevertheless, Greenberg is probably the only American art critic whose achievement places him within shooting distance of such European masters of the form as John Ruskin, Roger Fry, Charles Baudelaire, and Julius Meier-Graefe. His reputation rests chiefly on two things, the first of which was his early championship of Abstract Expressionism.
In the 1940’s, when their work first came to public attention, such artists as Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Willem de Kooning were generally either ridiculed or ignored. A look at the art coverage from the 1940’s, in specialized journals as well as in newspapers and magazines like Time, shows a discipline by turns confused, complacent, and moribund. Greenberg, by contrast, instantly discerned that something important was going on in Abstract Expressionism (as it would come to be called), and his criticism sounded a new and vigorous note. He began writing about and praising Pollock as early as 1943. In 1948, on the occasion of de Kooning’s first one-man exhibition, Greenberg famously called him “one of the four or five most important painters in the country.”
Such judgments helped to establish the careers of many artists and, by the 1950’s, when Abstract Expressionism came into its own, to secure Greenberg’s own authority as a critic of formidable power and prescience. T.S. Eliot, whose literary criticism Greenberg admired above all others, once wrote that “the rudiment of criticism is the ability to select a good poem and reject a bad poem; and its most severe test is of its ability to select a good new poem.” By this standard, Greenberg passed the most rigorous test to confront an art critic since the 1910’s. In fact, he passed it again and again in his discriminating reviews for the Nation (where he was the regular art critic from 1943 to 1949) and in the essays he wrote from the 1940’s through the 1960’s for Partisan Review, COMMENTARY (where he also worked as an editor in the 1950’s), Horizon, Encounter, and other journals.
In a deeper sense, however, it may well be that Greenberg’s lasting importance as a critic will be seen to rest less upon his particular likes and dislikes—and less upon his campaign on behalf of Abstract Expressionism—than upon the uncompromising seriousness with which he pursued his vocation as a critic. This is the second, and perhaps more important, thing that has underwritten Greenberg’s reputation as a major critic: his unwavering allegiance to the cause of high art. From the appearance of his first important essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Partisan Review in 1939, Greenberg staunchly upheld the prerogatives of high culture against the debasements of popular culture and, especially, the insidious attenuations of “middlebrow” taste.
Until quite recently, it has been difficult to take Greenberg’s measure as a critic because so little of his work was easily available. Many readers under the age of fifty or so knew him chiefly through Art and Culture, the modest selection of essays (many of them substantially revised) that Greenberg published in 1961. The appearance of Greenberg’s collected essays and criticism, edited and introduced by the art historian John O’Brian, has changed that. The first two volumes, containing work that Greenberg published from 1939 to 1949, appeared in 1987;1 the concluding two volumes, with work published through 1969, appeared last year.2
O’Brian is to be congratulated on a fine job of editing. Although the collected criticism is not quite the complete criticism—O’Brian lists a large handful of reviews, “statements,” and translations from the German that he left out—the series does present most of Greenberg’s work as a critic (excluding his few monographs on individual artists) as well as a useful bibliography of articles on him. There is also a good biographical sketch, as well as an excellent index to each volume that amounts to a summary of important events and figures in the cultural world of the period.
In the first two volumes, O’Brian puts his finger on one of Greenberg’s chief virtues as a critic—to wit, that he was “quick to reject what seemed meretricious in contemporary culture.” Unfortunately, in his introduction to volumes three and four, which cover the period 1950-69, O’Brian succumbs to a fashionable bit of left-wing ideological dogma according to which Abstract Expressionism was used by the U.S. government as a weapon in cold-war political maneuvering.3
Thus, in considering “The Plight of Our Culture,” a two-part essay about the fate of high culture in a democratic society that Greenberg published in COMMENTARY in 1953, O’Brian tells us that Greenberg’s earlier “pessimism about the culture of modernity had given way to optimism,” and suggests that this alleged change of position can be traced to the U.S. government’s effort to coopt intellectuals and extend U.S. cultural influence.
But (in the first place) Greenberg did not suddenly do an about-face and enroll himself in the ranks of cultural optimists. Although in “The Plight of Our Culture” he noted that “Middlebrow art, if not middlebrow learning or thought, is not wholly adulteration and dilution,” he also had these harsh words to say about it:
Middlebrow culture, because of the way in which it is produced, consumed, and transmitted, reinforces everything else in our present civilization that promotes standardization and inhibits idiosyncrasy, temperament, and strong-mindedness; it functions as order and organization but without ordering or organizing. In principle, it cannot master and preserve fresh experience or express and form that which has not already been expressed and formed. Thus it fails: . . . it cannot maintain continuity in the face of novelty, but must always forget and replace its own products.
These are hardly the words of a cheerleader for middlebrow culture.
One suspects that O’Brian’s disappointment with Greenberg has more to do with politics than with critical judgment. As Greenberg matured, he did gradually move away from the Marxism of his twenties and early thirties. Greenberg had cut his teeth on the anti-Stalinist Trotskyism that more or less defined the New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review. (At the end of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” for example, there is a reflexive allusion to “capitalism in decline,” and the assurance that “today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of culture.”) By 1948, however, Greenberg was already describing himself as “an ex- or disabused Marxist.”
But—and this is the crucial point—whatever his indulgence in socialist rhetoric, Greenberg always insisted on the relative autonomy of art. “True, I may be a socialist,” he wrote in 1946, “but a work of art has its own ends, which it includes in itself and which have nothing to do with the fate of society.”
The idea that art has its “own ends” which have “nothing to do with society” is at the center of Greenberg’s defense of high culture—and it is what enrages his critics on the academic Left. The idea is hardly original to him. It belongs to a tradition of thinking that dates back to the 18th century, when the term “aesthetics” in the modern sense was coined. When it comes to art, Greenberg is essentially a Kantian, which means that he stresses the disinterestedness, autonomy, and irreducibility of aesthetic experience. Our appreciation of art is not a means to an end—liberating the masses, say, or bringing about a revolution in social consciousness. On the contrary, art affords a pleasure that is an end in itself.
In one sense, the pleasure afforded by art is a very homely one. In a 1959 essay defending abstract art, Greenberg extols the humanizing potential of contemplation in general:
I think a poor life is lived by anyone who doesn’t regularly take time out to stand and gaze, or sit and listen, or touch, or smell, or brood, without any further end in mind, simply for the satisfaction gotten from that which is gazed at, listened to, touched, smelled, or brooded upon.
It is this sort of experience-for-its-own sake that is the common root of the more distilled kinds of experience Greenberg looks for in art.
But aesthetic experience is not necessarily private or subjective. Indeed, part of the reason we care about art is that it affords us the opportunity of sharing in an experience that enlarges and reaffirms our humanity. “There is a consensus of taste,” Greenberg insists, drawing on a term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, though it is not a consensus that can be articulated in propositions. Rather, its meaning depends on firsthand experience, that is, on taste—what Greenberg calls experience that “involves a certain exertion.” The absence of this exertion marks the lassitude that Greenberg abominated in middlebrow culture.
Until sometime in the 1940’s, when the avant-garde started becoming a caricature of itself, Greenberg sought an antidote to the depredations of middlebrow culture in the avant-garde. In an often-quoted passage, he speaks of the avant-garde artist as “narrowing” and “raising” art “to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would become either resolved or beside the point.”
The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape—not its picture—is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.
This search for an absolute leads naturally to a demand for abstraction, to an art that is autonomous or “purified” of references to everyday life.
It is undoubtedly true that throughout his career, Greenberg was a champion of abstract art. “The best of contemporary plastic art,” he wrote in 1940, “is abstract.” In 1954: “The best art of our day tends, increasingly, to be abstract.” In 1959: “The very best painting, the major painting, of our age is almost exclusively abstract.” And in 1967: “The very best art of this time continues to be abstract.”
At the same time, however, Greenberg acknowledged that, with the possible exception of some early Cubist works by Picasso, Braque, and Leger, “nothing in abstract painting . . . matches the achievements of the old masters.” The criterion of aesthetic achievement may lie principally in the purity and intensity of the experience art affords, but the human meaning of art is something broader.
Many people who know Green-berg’s work only through the caricatures produced by his enemies are surprised at the range of his interests. The fact that he could speak well of old-master painting, for example, does not accord with their image of desiccated “Greenbergian formalism.” In line with this image, Greenberg is often thought of as an aesthete, one whose view of art is precious, elitist, and impossibly rarefied.
Such criticisms may contain an element of truth, but they are not the whole story. It is true that Greenberg’s prose was not inviting. He himself spoke of the “flat, declarative way” in which he wrote. He favored the brief review—his pieces were often only a page or two in length—and he tended to purge his writing of argument, leaving only the judgments, the conclusions. This gave his criticism force; it also made it doctrinaire. In fact, Greenberg’s criticism often tended toward the dogmatic.
Dogmatism helped to bolster Greenberg’s authority, but it also opened his work to easy parody, as Tom Wolfe famously demonstrated in his attack on Greenberg in The Painted Word (1975). If Wolfe’s attack was amusing as well as unfair, that is chiefly because some of Greenberg’s laconic pronunciamentos on “purity” and “flatness” in modernist art do lend themselves to caricature—or, more seriously, misinterpretation.
As for the charge of elitism, there can be no doubt that it is in one sense justified. As a critic, what Greenberg cared about above all else was the endless process of sifting good from bad, better from worse. “Everything else,” he wrote, “is secondary.” This insistence on discrimination is what stood behind his disdain for middlebrow taste and middlebrow culture.
Ironically, from the perspective of today, much of what Greenberg attacked as middlebrow in the 40’s and 50’s looks pretty good by comparison with what followed. That is partly because today’s standards are so low. It is no secret that since the 1960’s, the attack against high culture has greatly intensified, and by now has taken root in the very institutions that were created to preserve and transmit the monuments of high culture—universities, museums, orchestras, and serious publishing houses. In rushing to embrace the demotic imperatives of political correctness and pop culture, these institutions have committed a wholesale betrayal of their cultural mission. In this situation, Greenberg’s adamant defense of high art stands as a refreshing alternative to the current morass, even if some of his animadversions against the middlebrow seem misplaced.
But there is another and deeper sense in which Greenberg was the opposite of an elitist. What he sought was not to deprive ordinary people of art but to maintain the distinctions between better and worse upon which the life of art ultimately depends. Moreover, if he celebrated the disinterested satisfaction of aesthetic experience, Greenberg also understood that art was not the whole or even the most important part of life.
For example, responding to the controversy surrounding the 1948 award of the Bollingen Prize to the poet Ezra Pound, who had broadcast anti-Semitic and pro-fascist propaganda during the war, Greenberg noted that “Life includes and is more important than art.” And he added:
In any case, I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, . . . that art silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist’s part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else, even if at the cost of his art. As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society.
Of course, it is one thing to warn against the dangers of “art-adoration” in interviews and occasional comments, quite another to avoid it in one’s own practice as a critic. Greenberg did not perhaps always manage to avoid it. But if aestheticism was the price Greenberg paid for his championship of high art, it is all the more poignant that he should have concluded, as in the Pound case, that aestheticism could be one of the most degrading and insidious enemies of life—and hence, ultimately, of art itself. Greenberg did not go in much for religion, but we can be pretty sure that he would have endorsed Dostoevsky’s observation in The Brothers Karamazov that “beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man.”
1 Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944 and Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, University of Chicago Press. See my review in COMMENTARY, December 1987.
2 Volume 3: Affirmations and Refusals, 1950-1956 (305 pp.) and Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969 (341 pp.), University of Chicago Press, $29.95 each.
3 On O'Brian's portrayal of Greenberg as an apostle of cold-war politics, see Hilton Kramer's “Clement Greenberg & the Cold War” in the New Criterion, March 1993.